Carry On, Australia

When the Christmas period comes around we tend to down tools a little bit at book club and choose lighter fare for the holiday period. One of our choices fit this criteria but the second threw up a couple of unexpected surprises.

Every reader has a few large gaps in their reading history, classic authors that somehow they have never got round to reading. P.G Wodehouse is one of those for me. I remember Fry and Laurie playing Jeeves and Wooster on 1980s TV in the UK and it was immensely popular. For some reason I never ticked that box but happily have now done so with Carry On, Jeeves, the first collection of stories in the iconic series.

I think I have said in previous entries how much I admire writers who can master the art of comedy in their prose. Satire is an extremely hard practice to pull off on paper in my view. Something that sounds funny spoken often doesn’t translate to the written word, losing its immediacy and nuance. Luckily Wodehouse has no such problems. The book is laugh out loud funny as the bumbling Wooster gets into yet another scrape for Jeeves to sort out. The language of Wooster is ridiculous, all exclamation and hyperbole, but it produces some genius comic scenes. Jeeves’s knack of knowing the solution to seemingly any problem gets Bertie out of a hole time and time again, but the farcical journey to get there is the great joy of the book.

I have to admit that the ten short stories in this volume are formulaic in structure, and indeed after having read them I would struggle to tell them apart easily. But I assume the stories were originally published separately, so this repetitiveness is really a product of modern publishing tastes. I think the brutal truth though is that I won’t be returning to Jeeves and Wooster any time soon – I can fully appreciate its genius and Wodehouse’s brilliant ability to write satire, but in all honesty it isn’t really for me.

Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians is considered one of the great, and earliest, Australian children’s novels. I have to confess that I had never heard of the book before, but even with the excuse of being a foreigner to these shores, I wasn’t the only one.

The book is considered for children as I said, but its subject matter and language are surely pitched at a more mature audience. The opening page contains the line ‘the miasmas of naughtiness’, which I suspect would fly over the heads of a number of adults, let alone kids. And the plot of the book is really quite harrowing in places, particularly (spoiler alert) the death of eldest daughter Judy, who is hit by a falling tree at rhe novel’s conclusion. This passage is beautifully written, and quite moving to read as Judy slowly succumbs to the fatal injuries she suffered in the accident.

There are some parts which would trouble a modern audience toom in particular the words and actions of the Captain, father to this unruly brood. I appreciate that families worked differently in the 1890s but his enthuasiastic approach to corporal punishment jarred very much with me, as did the almost lighthearted response to it that was shown by the children. Indeed the Captain could only be described as an appalling father, with a complete lack of empathy towards both children and wife. My sympathies lay with those kids, despite their moments of naughtiness.

All in all it was an unexpected read, and for that if no other I enjoyed it. I was surprised by what I read, and it made me think. Any book that can do that is worthy of praise.

Ripley’s Scoop

I’ve found over the years that approaching a book having already seen the film adaptation causes some problems. One of the obvious and most enjoyable aspects of reading is conjuring up the characters in your mind’s eye, and having them as yours only. My image of Holden Caulfield, for example, is probably vastly different to yours, and for that matter, Salinger’s. This is all to the good, for the author really only supplies the hook, it is the reader’s imagination that provides the rest.

So when reading The Talented Mr Ripley, our first choice this month, I already had Matt Damon’s portrayal of Tom Ripley firmly in my mind, and this lessened the enjoyment somewhat. I saw the film many years ago, and remembered little of the plot, but when reading the book, certain scenes gave me a flashback to the movie and blurred the lines of what I was reading a little bit. The other problem with reading after watching the film is the inevitable conflict over omissions, stuff that was taken out of the film or amended. I struggle not to think of these things when in this situation and it does cause frustration,.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book – I found it an enjoyable read and scarily plausible. Patricia Highsmith’s great strength is her ability to ratchet up the tension throughout. The pacing is exemplary, and the prose is seeped with paranoia as Tom has to keep looking over his shoulder to stay one step ahead of the police after his murder of Dickie Greenleaf.

One negative point – I inadvertently caught a glimpse of the last pages, which contained reviews of other Highsmith novels featuring Tom Ripley. I suspected that the novel would conclude with Tom escaping justice, but it would have been nice to find out for myself rather than have it given away. I suppose it taught me a lesson, not to go sneaking into the book and take it one page at a time.

A complete change of pace saw us look at Evelyn Waugh’s satire Scoop, written in the 1930s and poking fun at the journalism industry, I’ve always felt that satire must be one of the hardest genres to write well. It strikes me that comedy is easier to relay vocally than in the written word, which is why I admire those writers who can do it successfully.

And Waugh is certainly one of those; the novel tells of a man who essentially becomes a war correspondent by accident. A recipe for farce, sure, but Waugh keeps it hilarious without descending into the realms of ridiculousness. The novel feels relevant even 80 years after publication, particularly the idea that journalists can create news when there isn’t any through their sheer presence and influence. In a world now heavily commanded by social media, where seemingly innocuous tweets can suddenly become the news after being picked up and reported by journalists, this still resonates. The novel’s great strength is its timelessness, its sharp realism, which pins the dark art of journalism like no other before or since.